With a burgeoning interest in the idea of Christian Nationalism, the Christian Church in America has seen a renewed interest in modified versions of theonomy. Theonomy was a politico-theological movement that arose out of Reformed theological circles in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The central figures in this movement were R.J. Rushdooney, Gary North, Greg Bahnsen, Ken Gentry, and Gary DeMar. The various forms of theonomy have commonly been denominated by both adherents and critics, “dominion theology,” “Christian reconstructionism,” or “general equity theonomy.” While differences certainly exist in the specific way in which the theonomists packaged their proposals, there is a common commitment to emphasize that God desires the implimentation of the Old Covenant civil laws into the governments of the world in the New Covenant.
Legion are the problems with the theonomic proposals–not least of which is the fact that the Apostles never taught the fledgling New Covenant churches to labor for the implementation of the Old Covenant civil law into the government. Theonomy is utterly dependent upon the embrace of a postmillennialism that inevitably demands the implementation of a Christian theistic ethic into the fabric of every society. This makes nearly every form of theonomy a present non-reality that is dependent on a misconstrued eschatological hope. However, there are two other overarching hermeneutical reasons why theonomy is built on a defunct understanding of the role of the civil law in redemptive history.
In his chapter, “The Mosaic Theocracy,” in Eschatology of the Old Testament, Geerhardus Vos explained the unique place of the theocracy in redemptive history. He wrote,
“The eschatological idea influencing the constitution of the theocracy becomes dependent on the interaction of the type and the antitype. The future state imposes its own stamp on the theocracy, an actual institution of Israel. The theocratic structure projects its own character into the picture of the future. Heaven reflected itself on Israel and Israel became part of the future. . .There is somewhat of the shadowy, inadequate character of the prefiguration that passes over into the description of what the eschatological will be like when it comes. The antitype impresses its stamp upon the theocratic structure and imparts to it somewhat of its transcendent, absolute character. The theocracy has something ideal or unattainable about it. Its plan, as conceived by the law, hovers over the actual life of Israel. The theocracy in the idea transcends its embodiment in experience.”1
Vos proceeded to explain that this “unattainable” ideal of the eternal rule of God stamped on Old Covenant Israel served its purpose until the coming of Christ, who, in turn, spiritualized or eternalized everything about the theocracy. He explained,
“Israel fell short of the ideal at all points. This theocratic organization of Israel had something ideal about it from the beginning. It could not be attained. It hovered over the life of the people. . .The great principles and realities of theocratic life were embodied in external form. This was the only way to clothe the essence of the theocracy in a way that the Israelites could grasp. In order to keep the future eschatological picture in touch with Israel’s religion these forms had to be maintained. The prophets had to give the essence in particular forms. Eschatological revelation is presented in the language of the Mosaic institutions.
The New Testament first transposes it into a new key. Here in the New Testament it is spiritualized. In the Old Testament it is expressed in terms of perfection of the forms of Israel’s theocracy. The holy city is center; offices, organization, peace, abundance, etc. are there, but this all is to be eternalized in the messianic era, and will be free of the vicissitudes of the present era.”2
In short, Vos is suggesting that God imposed on Old Covenant Israel a shadow of His eschatological righteous rule. This shadow was to reflect the ideal until the coming of the Redeemer. The members of the Westminster Assembly made the strongest possible declaration about the expiration of the Old Covenant civil law in the New Covenant era, when they wrote,
“To [Old Covenant Israel], as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any other, now, further than the general equity thereof may require.”
Everything that belonged to the Old Covenant theocracy is now spiritualized in Christ. It was not merely the types, shadows, and ordinances. It was the ceremonial and civil laws belonging to the Mosaic economy. This is substantiated exegetically by the way in which the Apostles utilized Old Covenant civil laws in their letters to the New Covenant churches. In his excellent JETS article, “The Scriptures Were Written For Our Instruction,” George Knight persuasively asserts that everything in Scripture, including the Old Covenant theocratic case laws, now has a spiritual application to the New Covenant community. He wrote,
“In 1 Cor 9:8 ff., [the Apostle] appeals to the theocratic case law that specifies that oxen must not be muzzled when threshing (citing Deut 25:4 in 1 Cor 9:9). Paul is persuaded that this law, like others, reflects God’s view of how people should relate not only to animals but also to human beings when those human beings are involved in laboring for our benefit. . This is not the only situation in which Paul appeals to the theocratic case laws. He does it also earlier in 1 Cor 5:13. There he refers to one or more of the passages in Deuteronomy in which God in his written word instructs the people of God to remove the unrepentant wicked man from their midst (which in the OT context is done by stoning him). And therefore Paul’s entire description of the action to be taken is that of removing the man from their midst and not associating with him, not even eating with him. We note however that the action Paul enjoins is not that of stoning but rather of putting him out of the fellowship with a view to his repentance (cf. 1 Cor 5:5). That this spiritual action becomes the NT principle for church discipline in general, rather than the act of stoning, is borne out by his comments in 2 Cor 2:6–8 where he urges that one who had been disciplined should be forgiven, comforted and restored (impossible if he has been stoned to death). Paul’s utilization of this theocratic case law shows that he regards it as teaching an important principle that must be followed by the Church, even though not in the theocratic form of stoning to death but rather in the form appropriate to the non-theocratic, non-national spiritual entity that the Church is in distinction from the Israel of the OT. Here the apostle takes account of the difference that fulfillment has brought about and at the same time maintains the principle of continuity for the instruction as it relates to the Church, and in doing so he also has â€œwritten for our instruction.”3
Those who have been swept up with various forms of theonomy (or Christian Nationalism) should reflect deeply on the redemptive-historical role of the Old Covenant civil law as well as on how the Apostles spiritually applied it to the New Covenant church. To move beyond these things is to impose an artificial, underdeveloped, and over realized worldview on the Scriptures rather than to allow Scripture to determine our understanding of the precise relationship between the Old Covenant theocracy and the New Covenant church.
1. Geerhardus Vos, The Eschatology of the Old Testament, ed. James T. Dennison Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001), 117–118.
3. An excerpt taken from p. 10 of George Knight’s ETS artcile, “The Scriptures Were Written for our Instruction.”